Monday, July 28, 2008

Carl Van Vechten

Photographing Famous People
by Charlie Leck

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale, houses some incredible items. There was a time when it was virtually impossible for us, peons, to spend time browsing the collection. First, it took an expensive trip to New Haven and then it took quite some finagling to get a pass to work within the library itself. Now, it’s possible to visit The Beinecke on-line
. I’ve made the on-line trip a number of times and I always come away feeling like I spent my time in a valuable way. So, I thought, why the heck shouldn’t I recommend it to my readers. It takes a little work to figure out the institution’s search engine, but I did it in a few minutes and found myself ranging through their wonderful collection of digital images. I found much to admire and I am constantly discovering images that make me gasp.

I could give you dozens of examples, but I suggest you go on in, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, and look around. Just type in photographers in the ‘digital image’ search engine and hundreds and hundreds of possibilities will be afforded you. This is the way I discovered Carl Van Vechten. I bookmarked the site and I go back in regularly to enjoy his photographs of famous and nearly-famous people.

I’ve thought, as I examine portrait photographs of famous people, like Willa Cather (below), that this would have been a wonderful job to have. Yet, it takes a real talent to do it well and to capture, in a photograph, something more than just the external image of someone. Van Vechten had a way of putting on to his ‘canvass’ something of the soul and spirit of these people.

Have fun in this extraordinary library at Yale.
Margaret Walker:
"A writer whose accomplishments exceed her reputation, Margaret Walker made significant contributions to American literature and to the study of African-American culture and history. Throughout her long career as a writer, educator, and scholar, Walker received many awards and accolades for her creative and critical writing, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and numerous honorary degrees. Her poetry and fiction influenced and inspired such writers as Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a music teacher. The family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when both her parents joined the faculty of New Orleans University, now known as Dillard University. Walker’s mother and father encouraged her to keep a journal and to read widely in both European literary classics and contemporary American literature. Her reading included the work of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other Harlem Renaissance writers flourishing at the time.

"As a young woman, Walker had the opportunity to meet Langston Hughes when he visited New Orleans on a reading tour. Hughes recognized her talent and encouraged
Walker, who was enrolled at the time in New Orleans University, to seek greater educational opportunities at a northern university. On his advice, Walker went to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. After graduation, she worked with the Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project where she met other Chicago writers, including Richard Wright, who would later write Native Son. "In the 1930s, Walker went to graduate school at the University of Iowa where she completed her first collection of poems. After entering the manuscript in the Yale Younger Poets competition twice, she submitted the collection a third time and won; Stephen Vincent Benét selected her book, For My People (1942), for publication by Yale University Press. Though some were surprised that the prestigious award should go to a young, African-American woman (the New York Times headline announcing the award read 'Negro Girl Wins Yale Poetry Prize'1 ), Benét praised the poems. 'They are set for voice and the blues,' he wrote, 'they could be sung as easily as spoken, and first and last, they are a part of the earth.'2

"In addition to poetry, Walker wrote a novel, Jubilee. Called 'The reverse side of Gone with the Wind,'3 Jubilee is based on Walker’s great grandmother’s life. The story follows a slave girl from her childhood on a southern plantation, through the Civil War, to her life as a free woman during Reconstruction. Jubilee was praised for its historical accuracy as well as its high literary quality. Walker presents such a carefully researched and historically accurate picture of the lives of southern slaves that the novel has been taught in American history classes. Because of her commitment to the understanding and study of African-American history and culture, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of Black History, Life and Culture of Black People. The institute is located at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker was on the faculty from 1949 until her retirement in the 1970s. Walker served as director of the Institute and donated her own archive there to create the Margaret Walker Alexander National Resource Center." [Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University]

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